Archives For NBA Playoffs

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  June 6, 2012

It’s been interesting, watching the battle between old and young throughout the playoffs. The final four is mostly three parts veteran, one part youth. Tonight could be curtains for the San Antonio Spurs, facing elimination at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder represent the last opportunity for some semblance of the NBA’s next generation to get their shot at the Larry O’Brien. Of course, Kevin Durant isn’t exactly a bright-eyed rookie at this point – this being his fifth year in the league. Meanwhile, the old-as-Methuselah Celtics head back to Boston, with a chance to put away Miami and head to another finals appearance. Here’s a smattering of links from Laker-centric to the games at hand:

Brian Kamenetzky at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers remarks on the option pickup for Andrew Bynum’s last year under contract.

Dave McMenamin from ESPN Los Angeles, delivers his Mike Brown report card.

Mark Medina at the LA. Times has a report card for the front office.

Mike Bresnahan at the Times weighs in on Bynum’s pickup.

Matt Moore at Eye On Basketball writes about Orlando’s continued effort to being Phil Jackson to their front office, in a hybrid long distance relationship.

Jeff Latzke from the AP, files a report for Yahoo, about OKC on the verge of advancing, and the Spurs’ determination not to let it happen.

Big50 at Pounding the Rock has a preview for tonight’s game.

Aaron McGuire provides a game six Manna of Hope for 48 Minutes of Hell.

Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo writes about Miami’s frailties, and the possibility of an experiment gone wrong,

Mark Spears at Yahoo writes about the Celtics who wouldn’t die, headed back to TD Garden.

***

Generational questions and the matter of direction, loom large for the Los Angeles Lakers. Age is an obvious talking point, with Kobe nearing his end game. That in of itself doesn’t necessarily steer the boat but winning does. There’s also a question of style, of power versus speed. Boston as a team may be old, but Rajon Rondo isn’t. Without his quickness and game-changing ability, the Celtics aren’t still in this thing.

As widely noted, Andrew Bynum’s final option year has been exercised. It doesn’t necessarily secure his future – Darius wrote about uncertainty and free agency. And then there’s the matter of money – the staggering amount that’s on our plate right now, and the fact that most of it comes off the books in 2014. This brings us back to the here and now – what are the changes this summer, how does it or doesn’t it position us for the future? It’s the question of priorities and choices – youth, speed, power, and veteran ability down the stretch. Which path do we take? How do we best surround Kobe with assets that can bring him one more ring? Because forget all the on-record talk about lots more championships before he’s done – the end game right now, is one more.

– Dave Murphy

I’m not sure there are many people that expect a Laker win tonight. They’re on the road, are coming off a meltdown loss that triggered some finger pointing comments, and it’s all under the backdrop of the Lakers performing poorly in these types of games (see game 4, Mavericks, 2011 playoffs). Add in several other variables – OKC’s talent and determination, this being their 3rd game in 4 nights – and the Lakers are facing long odds tonight.

That said, the game is happening and the Lakers have said they’ll be ready. Outside of closing games (an important factor, obviously) they’ve played extremely well since game 2 of this series and their blueprint for success is still in place. Will they conjure the effort and resolve needed to win is certainly the number one question but if they do, another game within reach is on the docket for tonight. On the whiteboard after game 4 the words “one game at a time” were written so here’s hoping they take that to heart.

A few keys for this evening:

*Pick and roll coverages remain critical. Down the stretch of game 4, the Lakers’ D came unraveled mostly due to the pressure Russell Westbrook placed in OKC’s P&R attack. He did more than probe, he propelled himself through the cracks and created good shots. We’ve been saying it since game 1 but bears repeating: the Lakers must step up high, contest the ball handler, and make the Thunder go to their secondary options. When the ball moves, the Lakers must rotate and do so with energy and precision. The Thunder want to move the ball around the perimeter to create good looks and this means the bigs must leave the paint to cover Thunder players moving around the wing. Doing this successfully is what makes the defense work.

*Ron needs help in isolation against Durant. Artest is a proud defender that still scraps hard and shows tremendous fight. And, in a lot of situations he’s doing a fine job of bothering Durant. However, one of those areas isn’t in 1-4 isolations where Durant has a live dribble. Durant’s ability to pull up from range is forcing Ron higher out on the floor and his improved handle is making it difficult for Ron to contain him off the dribble. Game 4’s dagger was the product of this exact situation as Ron sagged back playing the drive only to have KD put up a three pointer off the bounce. Ron must do a better job of keeping KD on one side of the floor but his help must be there when he uses his dribble to attack the paint. KD has shown he can be turnover prone when the second defender shows timely help but the issue is that the help isn’t always there. Ron’s been such a great defender during his time with the Lakers that it looks like the back line isn’t as aware when he’s working in isolation. Tonight, they’ll need to be as I expect Durant to attack early and often now that he’s back home.

*Pau Gasol must get a bit greedy, but not overly so. Pau’s been put through the ringer for his game 4 decision making and there’s merit to some of the criticism. For a player as cerebral as Pau, shoot-pass decisions are probably some of the more difficult ones he has to make on any given possession. And, seemingly, his unselfish nature skews more towards making the pass than taking the shot. There’s a reason Pau’s had so many lob assists to Andrew Bynum this season. However, the Lakers, as currently constructed, lack scoring punch. Pau is a versatile scorer and can aid the Lakers in their pursuit of more points. To score, he must turn down passing opportunities and look for his own chances. That said, as a key facilitator within the offense, he must also continue to seek out open teammates who can also boost the Lakers’ O. Pau has a difficult balance to strike tonight but it’s imperative he find it for the Lakers to win.

*Sessions needs more floor time and must do something with it. Games 3 and 4 showed that Sessions can be effective against the Thunder. He’s starting to find creases out of the P&R and he’s using his quickness off the ball to cut into the gaps when his teammates draw attention. He’s been a key player in the 1st half of the last two games but has faded down the stretch and been replaced by Blake in closing games. Well, in game 4 I thought the Lakers paid for keeping Blake on the floor as the Thunder guarded him a bit more closely and didn’t afford him the open shots he’d typically get. In turn, the Lakers had one less play maker on the floor (Sessions) in favor of a spot up shooter not given the room to do what he does best (Blake). I’d love to see Sessions get some extended run in this game and for him to take advantage of it by staying aggressive. I’ve mentioned the need for more points, Sessions can be someone that provides them.

*Hit the glass hard. The Thunder are strong rebounding team but they’re also a team that loves to help on paint touches. Ibaka and Perkins will both leave their men to slide into a contest position when the ball threatens the basket. The Lakers bigs must fight their way to the ball and get second shots. The Lakers haven’t been a very efficient offensive team this series but a way to counter that is to get extra possessions on the glass. Getting them tonight is imperative.

There are many more keys, obviously. Tempo, locking down role players, and avoiding fouls are all important. But none are more than what I mentioned at the top of this post: the Lakers must bring the requisite effort to win. They mustn’t get down on themselves in things don’t go their way. They mustn’t stop fighting if they get in an early hole. The Thunder will be ready to go from the opening whistle and the Lakers must understand that they’ll have to take a couple of shots on the chin and keep coming if they’re to win.

No one expects the Lakers but they must believe that they can. Here’s to both teams flying back to Los Angeles.

If you missed this game, I feel sorry for you and envy you at the same time.

The Lakers played hard tonight. Coming off a back to back game, I feared for how their legs would hold up. I feared how a young, talented, and vengeful Thunder team would take it to them mercilessly. I knew that the Lakers had a plan that worked but worried if they’d have the gas in their tank to execute it.

Early in this game, my fears and worries seemed to be misplaced. The Lakers looked to be the fresher team. They played a quicker tempo than expected and took advantage of their transition opportunities. After a rough start defensively, they found their stride on that side of the floor, getting up on screen actions and contesting shots. They pressured ball handlers and controlled the back boards. They played well.

Kobe Bryant was in full attack mode. He flashed his trademarked footwork but did his work quickly and decisively. He’d swing through, take two dribbles, and explode to the rim. He’d dribble once, slow, and then explode out of a hesitation move. He worked the post, turn and face, and then take a quick first dribble before elevating for his jumper. He drew fouls every which way imaginable. He was brilliant. Until he wasn’t. But we’ll get to that later.

Bynum, too, brought his ‘A’ game. He controlled the post offensively and had his entire arsenal going. On one possession he’d hit a middle jump hook. On another a turnaround jumper. Then, a couple possessions later, he’d sprint the floor for a dunk. After that he’d step through and draw a foul and earn FT’s.

Others also did well. Jordan Hill made an impact on the glass – especially on the offensive end. Ron hit some big three pointers and played hard nosed D, getting his hand on loose balls and helping to force turnovers. Sessions was again very good in getting into the paint and creating for others while Blake was also solid even though he had a rough shooting night.

Things were going well and this is why if you missed this part of the game, I feel for you. The Lakers were holding a lead in the 7 to 10 point range for most of the night and while they weren’t cruising, they were mostly in control.

Only thing is, with a team as good and as explosive as the Thunder, control is fleeting. And this is why if you went and saw the Avengers tonight or had a nice dinner with a loved one or if you simply got caught in traffic, I envy you. Because you wouldn’t have watched the Lakers surrender another lead down the stretch; you wouldn’t have had your heart broken for the 2nd time since Wednesday.

The Lakers led by 13 with 8:02 left in this game. When you lead by that much but then lose by 3 it’s a slow death; it’s stepping in a pit of quicksand. And when you lose that type of lead, it doesn’t happen because of a single play.

The Lakers played poorly on both ends. Things started to pile up and they didn’t have any answers for what the Thunder were doing to them. Defensively, they couldn’t slow Russell Westbrook. He was magical, creating shots out of nothing by sliding through the cracks of the Laker D and masterfully using every inch he was given. If the Lakers didn’t step out high enough on the P&R, he’d hit a pull up jumper. If they came out high and thwarted his first attempt to attack, he’d pull back and then attack again to find the crease he sought. He truly was something special tonight.

Offensively, the Lakers simply couldn’t regain their formula for success. OKC started to front the post w/ Perkins taking away easy entry passes to Bynum. Gasol was also fronted when he tried to post but he then countered by moving to the elbow area and shallow wing. With their bigs disrupted, the ball stayed on the perimeter but no one was moving or screening and the ball stuck to a single side of the floor but with few options for release. When this happens, Kobe normally ends up with the ball and he’s going to shoot it. We’ve seen this for years – it’s not a Mike Brown problem, the same thing happened under Phil Jackson. I’m not necessarily even going to blame Kobe here either. He’s on the perimeter and guys are looking for outlets. He’s a pretty aggressive guy in making himself available for the ball and doesn’t mind shooting. Maybe he could have done more to get everyone going. Maybe not.

In the end, Kobe’s play is just one piece of the puzzle though. Again, the bigs couldn’t carve out space. When Pau caught the ball (which, to be fair wasn’t even that often) he wasn’t assertive looking for his shot. The same could be said for Blake. When Ron caught the ball he had no problem shooting but due to his earlier success, he was being guarded more closely and was not afforded the type of open looks he’d already proven he could knock down.

And with all this going wrong, the Lakers gave up their lead. The Thunder chipped away, the Lakers continued to stumble and that was that. Pau’s errant pass and Durant’s dagger three were just the final bright neon signs that fancily displayed what had already been occurring for a full seven and a half minutes. I know those two plays will get the headlines – they were major plays in the final minute of a close game – but let’s be real here. Those plays aren’t even part of the equation if the full collapse wasn’t already on. They may have been the proverbial straw the broke the camel’s back but it’s really the million other straws that break it, no?

After a thousand words of this recap, though, I only have one last thing to say. There’s a way of viewing this that the Lakers have been the better team this series. They’ve only won a single game but have been mostly fantastic in two others with a tragic inability to close out what looked to be sure victories. To that, I say, that’s a nice story but the better team – the team that’s been favored to win – is the one that’s leading 3-1 in this series. Back when the Lakers were winning championships they were the team that would win this game in the way the Thunder did. No lead was ever safe; no game was ever really out of reach. And when the Lakers would win those games – under circumstances very similar to the ones that led to the Thunder winning this one – we’d all say that the Lakers were the better team. We’d say that they found a way to win. Well, give the Thunder credit because in game 4 they found a way to win, they were the better team.

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Last night the Lakers won a game at the FT line and that seems to have sparked some controversy about the nature of the calls, the refereeing, and what that meant about the game. So, before I get into anything about game 4, let me say this…

When it comes to the refereeing, I’ve always taken the same stance: players can’t control how the game is called, they must adjust to it and go from there. When I’m frustrated with the refs it’s normally because they make it difficult for the players to adjust by not calling fouls consistently on both sides of the floor or from possession to possession; that a foul on one end, isn’t a foul on the other. Last night, I didn’t think that was the case. However, what I did think was that much more contact was allowed in the paint than on the perimeter. Thus, any contact around the rim was met with a shrug while guys on the wing earned whistles for slight grabs and holds – especially when they were receiving passes or making their initial move to the rim.

For the players, I’m sure that’s frustrating but they must adjust to that and play on. Ultimately, in a 3 point game, the contest was there for either team to win. Plenty of plays could have been made by either side to claim the victory. The FT’s obviously mattered a lot. Saying otherwise would be disingenuous. But many other plays mattered too. Ignoring those would also be disingenuous. Whether the officiating evens out in the end is rarely my concern because that can’t be controlled. Complaining about it may make you feel better but it doesn’t change anything. I say this when the Lakers win or when they lose.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

The quick turnaround between games means that there’s really no time to dwell on last night’s events. In a way, that favors the Thunder with their frustration fueling them and their younger legs able to carry them. They’ll surely be ready to play tonight; with their youth, they’d probably have been ready to play a double-header last night. This isn’t to say they won’t have any fatigue, but I anticipate it being more mental than physical. These close, hard fought playoff games blunt the brain and that takes time to recover -time neither team will have.

From the Lakers side, they’ll have both mental and physical fatigue to battle. They too have been through the ringer mentally. Only  a few days ago they literally gave away a game and last night pulled out a similar contest. The roller coaster ride of those events would be taxing on any team, even a veteran one like the Lakers. Physically, they’ll have to deal with heavy legs. They’re trying to play a power game that requires the battling for position on every possession. That war for real estate is one of attrition that grinds players down. Being the aged team doesn’t aid them here and bouncing back to provide the same effort tonight will prove difficult.

It’s necessary, however. For the Lakers to win, they must continue to ugly up the game. The Thunder continue to be the favorite as the deeper, younger team. But if the series remains a slugfest, the gap lessens between both squads. A back alley brawl favors the bigger, more physical team. And as Mike Brown has said, he wants his group to carry that label. If the Lakers can force this type of action on the Thunder, they can get the them to play on their turf both figuratively and literally tonight.

That said, expect more adjustments from the Thunder tonight to counter L.A.’s gameplan. The Lakers are daring the Thunder big men to beat them, gambling more and more as these games (and possessions) progress. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are leaving their men with reckless abandon to help on screen actions. Off the ball they’re stepping out – sometimes as far as the three point line – to help with ball denials to obstruct passing angles. Sooner or later the Thunder are going to recognize this and simply pass the ball to their big men who are setting screens and test the Lakers rotations underneath. I mean, if Kevin Durant is going to draw his man and the man guarding the screener, that screen man is the one that’s open. If the Lakers weak side  rotations (especially the backside big) isn’t quick to rotate, this action will start to produce layups. They must be ready to help the helper and thwart these counters.

The Thunder also showed a nice offensive wrinkle where they ran Durant off a pin-down screen and then used him as a screener on the ball in the P&R for Westbrook. Durant darting to the top of the circle got Ron trailing and in poor position to help on the ball handler as he turned the corner off KD’s screen. This action freed Westbrook on at least two occasions and set him up with clean mid-range jumpers at the foul line. This is a creative play and the Lakers must be ready for it, and other actions that involve a man coming off a screen only to set another. These types of actions can work with any of OKC’s three main perimeter threats handling the ball or setting the screen so the Lakers must be ready to help – especially the back line bigs who become primary rotators when the perimeter D breaks down.

Offensively, the Lakers must simply do what they’ve done the past two games. Last night Andrew Bynum didn’t shoot well but he got the exact looks the team wants him to get. When he battled for position he was able to work 10 feet and in, where a power dribble set him up for any one of his hooks or counters. He was visibly frustrated that some of these shots weren’t falling but his perseverance led to him earning FT’s while also contributing to the overall gameplan of bully ball through power post ups. This is the approach that he needs to take again tonight, with the hope that some of those bunnies he missed start to fall.

Kobe too must build on his approach from last night. As I mentioned in the preview and Jeff Van Gundy mentioned during the telecast, Kobe’s economy of dribbles and quick strike attack are what will work best against this team. One dribble pull up jumpers, two dribble attacks to the rim, and movement off the ball that gets him paint touches are how he can score best. Sefolosha is one of the better defenders around but even he can have trouble dealing with a decisive Kobe who isn’t looking to fake his way into baskets.

Ultimately, though, the two players who really need to bring their ‘A’ offensive games are Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol. Sessions’ first half was a sight for sore eyes, as he worked well on and off the ball attacking the seams of the defense to either score or set up teammates. Tonight he’ll likely need to take and make a couple of jumpers to keep the defense honest but it’s his overall mindset needs to carry over from last night. He must be assertive and inject himself into the action, the Lakers are a much better offensive team when this happens.

As for Pau, he must move from supporting actor to lead role tonight. Last night’s game gave him the opportunity to mostly facilitate and work the glass but he’ll need to be more aggressive looking for his own shots in game 4. He can shoot his jumper over Ibaka when given space but, like Kobe, can make quick drives to the rim when he’s crowded on the perimeter. Last night he tried to create off the dribble but settled for pull up jumpers but tonight he must try to get all the way to the rim to get baskets and/or earn trips to the foul line. Also, he must find a way to beat the fronting defense he faces when matched up with Nick Collison. He must continue to try and root Collison up the the lane line, something his teammates must recognize and then throw the ball over the top off ball reversals and high-low actions.

The difference between a 2-2 series and 3-1 series is huge. If tonight ends with the latter, the Lakers may be able to fight off OKC (much like Denver did the Lakers last round) for a game or two more but the inevitability of ultimate defeat will loom large. However if it’s the former, the Lakers are right back in the series with both teams needing to take 2 of 3 to advance. Even as an underdog, that’s where the Lakers would like to be. Tonight will require all their fortitude, discipline, and guile. But the plan is in place for them to follow. They just have to go get it.

Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers enter game three as desperate as they could be. Wednesday’s game two offered a roadmap to victory but the Lakers veered of course before their destination, driving off a cliff to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tonight they’ll need to be better for longer or risk having the final nail put in their coffin by going down 3-0.

As stated though, the roadmap does exist. The Lakers found some promising defensive adjustments in game 2 that they should be able to refine and carry forward this evening. They’ll need to continue to play the P&R higher to better cut off driving lanes and contest pull up jumpers. They’ll also need to continue to play off ball actions better by clogging the paint to encourage the Thunder to kick the ball out or be forced to shoot over a helping defender. Kobe will also need to be as effective as a roamer as he was in game 2 when he consistently left Sefolosha to dig down in the paint and help on Durant and Westbrook when they came close to the paint. This tactic muddied up the FT line area that the Thunder were so effective in attacking in game 1 while also forcing some bad passes.

That said, the Lakers can’t rest on their laurels and simply go out and do the same things defensively with impression the Thunder won’t make some adjustments of their own. In game 2 the Thunder bigs (especially Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed) overpassed and didn’t look for their shots immediately even when wide open. These are the players the Lakers respect least on defense (along with Sefolosha), but I can imagine Scott Brooks letting them know that they’ll be open and that they should attack when given room. The Lakers must also be aware of back door actions and quick counters to the overplays that were successful. The Thunder can use slip screen actions, weak side cuts, and quick ball movement to disable a defense that jumps at their main scorers, so being prepared for those counters is imperative.

What’s also imperative is the Lakers finding some reliable offense. When we look at game two, we’ve mostly focused on how the Lakers held the Thunder to only 77 points but the Lakers only scored 75 of their own. Unless this team finds more reliable offense, they’ll continue to be in games where the Thunder’s superior scoring efficiency comes back to bite them. They must create a larger cushion and/or find ways to get good looks when OKC’s defense tightens.

First and foremost, this means getting Kobe on track. He’s shooting 37.2% so far this series, mostly on highly contested jumpers that are easily challenged. He must find ways to crack the code of Sefolosha’s defense and I think there are a couple of ways it can happen. First is that if Kobe’s going to do a lot of work in isolation, he needs to compact his game. What I mean is that he needs to make his moves quicker and avoid using so many fakes to try and get his man out of position. In game 2 he had a fair amount of success taking one or two dribbles and elevating quickly to shoot his jumper or taking an extra dribble to get all the way to the rim. But when he had to make his catch on the dribble and try to shake his man or if he went into a headfake clinic to try and get his man in the air, neither Thabo nor Harden were taking the bait. Kobe needs to refine his game while also getting more help from his teammates in the form of better screens and quicker passes when he breaks open on his cuts.

The bigs must also continue to grind away. Andrew Bynum has proven he can beat single coverage consistently and needs to continue to do so. If he can work to get moderately deep post position he should be able to get off his lefty jumphook and then counter off that with his step through where he goes under the rim to finish on the other side of the basket. In game 2 he showed how effective this arsenal could be as long as he could beat the fronting D to establish the block. Gasol can also work in the post but will need to continue to show variety. He worked well driving to his left hand and finishing with that sweeping lefty hook. If he can continue to make that move he can work in counters to that where he pivots and then finishes strong with his right hand as well. He’ll also need to continue to hit his jumper so that his man has to play him close enough to open up that drive.

Tonight’s also a game where the Lakers role players need to find their stride. Playing at home should help some, but they must be active and assertive in order to seize a strong performance. Barnes and Blake must look to maximize their strengths by hitting spot up jumpers (Blake) and slashing to the rim and getting out in the open court (Barnes). Jordan Hill must also continue his fine work on the glass while also getting some garbage baskets when his big man partner draws attention. He was great at that in game 2, he must carry it over.

And, finally, Ramon Sessions must find a way to make a difference. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that his play has been disappointing and while I’d attribute a lot of his shortcomings to the style of game he’s being asked to play and the general offensive scheme in place, there are ways he can be better. He must shoot when he’s open and do so with confidence. He must also take more command off possessions and run more actions that get him in position to hurt the defense. Primary sets may be for Kobe and the bigs but there’s a stretch in every 2nd and 4th quarter where he shares the floor with Pau as the only offensive threat but he’s still not aggressive enough. When they share the floor he can call more P&R’s and isolations for himself and no one would be mad. Also, whenever he’s being guarded by a player besides Westbrook, he should look to attack first and create something positive. That doesn’t have to be a shot for himself – a drive and kick to a shooter or draw and dish to a big can do wonders for this offense.

The Lakers are in a deep hole. Tonight they either start to climb out or get buried alive. Game 2 offered a moral victory but those count even less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Tangible success in the form of a victory needs to come for this team and it must start tonight. It won’t be easy as the Thunder offer the stiffest challenge of any opponent since the 2008 Celtics but that doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t continue to fight. If they need inspiration, they only need to look back a round at the team they vanquished. This series reminds me of that one in that after getting blown out in game 1, the Nuggets fought back in game 2 but still came up short. When they got home, they carried over that success to win the next two games game and two of the next three. The Lakers can do the same thing, but they must believe and then go do it. It starts tonight.

Friday Forum

Dave Murphy —  May 18, 2012

There’s something of a lull before the storm when it comes to the Lakers and the media right now, especially the national media. The team’s in a tough spot but it’s too risky to write them off. A win tonight will tilt articles toward redemption possibilities, and a loss will bring out the doomsday scenarios. A game will be played tonight and the focus will shift away (perhaps momentarily) from the last shot of Wednesday night’s game.

The Kamenetzky brothers at ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, IM about tonight’s game with Royce Young of the Daily Thunder.

The Great Mambino at Silver Screen and Roll, writes about the Lakers optimism, despite history not being on their side.

Mark Medina at the L.A. Times reports on Steve Blake dealing with the shot that didn’t go in, and the resulting twitter hate received by his wife Kristen. This one’s beyond the pale.

Kevin Ding at the OC Register shares the news of Pau Gasol being named citizen of the year by the NBA.

Ben Golliver at CBS Sports Eye On Basketball breaks down tonight’s Lakers/Thunder match.

Tom Spousta at the NY Times writes about Kobe Bryant’s recent difficulty closing out games.

Elizabeth Benson at Lakers Nation about lessons learned from the game two loss.

***

There’s a very old Jack London short story entitled A Piece of Steak. It chronicles an aging boxer’s last stand, against a fighter in the bloom of youth. It’s about shelf-life and inevitability, and shares a commonality with many other stories before and since. We know that OKC is younger, faster, and deeper. For now, we wait for the game, hoping that our veteran team can come away with a win, and a bit of extra meat on the bone.

– Dave Murphy

Last night’s loss still stings and will for some time, I imagine. When the team you root for collapses down the stretch, the ‘what ifs’ and ‘should have dones’ live in the front of your mind and sit there, sourly marinating. But that rotting feeling is really about the final two minutes of turnovers, poor transition defense, and poor half court execution. Durant’s steal, Kobe’s three pointer when the offense broke down, Harden’s baskets against a retreating defense were what lost the game.

What did not lose the game was the last inbounds play where Steve Blake got a good shot off, only to miss it just long. That play was designed to get Kobe a shot flaring to the opposite corner. The Lakers have actually used this play at least once this year, against the Hornets (h/t to Sebastian Pruiti for the clip):

As you can see in this clip, Kobe comes off a double down screen from Pau and Bynum looking to get a shot at the top of the key. However, that action is really a misdirection to force the defense to overplay. When the defense rushes to try and deny that option, Kobe then flares to the weak side off a back screen from Bynum to receive a pass and take the shot. While Kobe missed this shot against the Hornets, this is a well designed play (though with a difficult pass) and falls in line with the type of misdirection screen actions that the Lakers have used before this season to try and get a good shot against a defense that is primed to slow the initial flash to the ball.

Last night, however, the Thunder seemed ready to defend this type of action. When the play initially starts, the Thunder are in the type of defensive position that you’d expect. Because they’re only up by a point and a two pointer beats them, their bigs are in position to protect the rim from the Lakers’ bigs diving hard. Kobe’s man is on his inside shoulder to try and stay in between him and the ball. But, once the action starts, everyone clamps down even harder. Perkins bodies Bynum so he doesn’t get a clean pick on Sefalosha who also does a good job of fighting through the screen. Kobe then releases just a hair early in flaring to the corner and Ibaka does a good job of being below the screen so he can cover Kobe as he peels off Pau’s back pick. When you add this to Durant’s long arms disrupting Ron’s view, it’s easy to see why this action got bottled up (h/t to DJ ReMark for the video clip):

Ultimately, Blake got a good shot. Out of all the options coming out of that play – Kobe’s jumper from the deep corner, Pau making a catch at the top of the key and then working to get his own shot, or Blake shooting a wide open corner three – I’m perfectly happy with the look the Lakers’ got. Ron made the right read by passing to Blake, Blake got his feet set and took a shot he’s very capable of hitting, and the Lakers still had a chance to get an offensive rebound because the shot was taken immediately.

I do understand that we can criticize the play design (as Tim Legler did in the clip) as it’s primary option is running to the opposite corner some 45+ feet from the inbounder. That’s a risky pass in any scenario and with the athletes OKC had on the floor plus the recovery time that type of a pass allows, a lot of bad things could have happened had Ron made that pass (including Ibaka shadowing Kobe as Legler implied). Also, the play is seemingly setting up a very difficult shot from Kobe – one where he’d be fading from the basket and likely very close to the three point line and the baseline out of bounds.

All that said, the real criticism still lies in the Lakers’ play down the stretch and how the play preceding the inbound play by Ron unfolded. In that set Kobe started with 18 seconds on the shot clock but dribbled down the clock even though the Thunder had a foul to give. Watching it live, I was wondering when Kobe was going to initiate his move but it was obvious he was eying the right short corner for his final shot. That’s a jumper he’s hit countless times before and is the epitome of a muscle memory play for him. The fact that he’d want to take that shot isn’t a shock but the way the play unfolded certainly could have been handled better.

In the end, though, none of it went right. And today we all must live with it. Tomorrow offers another chance, one I can only hope offers as good an opportunity to get a win.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Game one was a disaster for the Lakers that us fans would just as soon forget. But for the players, there’s a fair amount to glean from that blowout loss. Because with every missed rotation, bad coverage, and offensive miscue the Lakers can take note and do better. To win tonight, they must.

In a vacuum, that shouldn’t be that difficult. Outside of the first 10 minutes of the game, the Lakers didn’t do much right. And while the Thunder deserve credit for capitalizing on those mistakes, the Lakers can turn tonight’s contest into a much closer affair should they simply avoid being so giving on both sides of the ball.

With that said, here are a handful of things to improve on tonight that can lead to the Lakers evening up the series…

*Play the pick and roll and all other screen actions better. In game one, the Lakers did just about everything wrong in covering the P&R. Guards got caught on screens, big men sagged too low against ball handlers turning the corner, and wings over helped trying to compensate. This led to the Thunder getting clean looks at the hoop and the Lakers hanging their heads as the points piled up. In other types of screen actions the Lakers took the same approach and were burned in the same manner. When Durant curled off picks, his man got clipped without recovering quickly enough while big men sagged below the action waiting to be attacked. If you recall Durant’s first quarter dunk over Bynum, that play was set up because Ron was a step slow in recovering and KD used two long strides to elevate while Bynum hung back.

Adjustments here are easy in principle, but will require effort and discipline in executing them. First and foremost, guards must get through screens quicker. Whether chasing over the top or darting underneath, the guard must recover and do so quickly. Second, the big men must play the screen higher. Whether they hedge hard or play it more flat doesn’t necessarily matter as long as they’re higher in the action and ready to defend when the ball comes at them. Hanging back and inviting pull up jumpers in rhythm can lead to the type of onslaught seen on Monday. Third, the defenders not directly involved in the play must be alert and ready to help the helper. When the bigs commit, teammates must have their backs. Wings must drop down to help defend the paint and everybody must gang rebound.

*Cut out the live ball turnovers. The Lakers first possession was a bad pass that was stolen and dunked going the other way. In the first half they’d commit 7 more turnovers that OKC turned into 16 total points. The Thunder posted the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the league during the regular season and hung a 133 rating on the Lakers on Monday. Giving a team with that level of potency extra possessions – especially ones that lead to the easiest types of baskets – is a recipe for disaster. The Lakers must be more careful, but also act with more purpose on offense. Too many Laker turnovers seemed to be the result of over thinking an action or trying too hard for the primary option instead of looking to counters that were more open. The Lakers need to play smart, but loose. If something isn’t there, go away from it and attack another way. The Thunder are a smart defensive team but the Lakers made them look even smarter by not swinging the ball, not attacking off the dribble, and not using a varied attack. That must change tonight.

*Get Kobe moving into attack positions more often, preferably below the foul line. Whether on or off the ball, Kobe was spending too much of his time working 18 feet and out. At that distance his game becomes overly dependent on making jumpers and as the old saying goes – you live by the jumper, you die by the jumper. Kobe must instead work closer to the rim to find his rhythm. I’d love to see some of the cross-screen actions out of their “horns” actions to get Kobe flashing into the post or curling into the paint. I’d love to see him work more stagger screens that bring him to the short corner or get him on the move where he can make his catch at the pinch post with a live dribble. I’d also like to see him operate in the P&R more, especially with Gasol. It’s been a while since the Lakers utilized their Kobe/Pau P&R on a cleared side that forces the rotations that ultimately lead to Bynum being free under the rim. Dusting that action off would be a sight for sore eyes.

*Push the ball more. The Lakers had 0 (yes, zero) fast break points in game one. Against a long team that has strong individual defenders in the half court, that’s something that needs to change tonight. I’m not asking for the Lakers to turn into the SSOL Suns, but they could do well to take a page from the Spurs handbook and push the ball into the front court and look to seize opportunities against a defense that isn’t set. Be it Sessions or Kobe or Ron, advance the ball and look for the cracks in the D. The Thunder are a middling transition D team that likes to crash the offensive boards. Their will be opportunities to run, the Lakers need to recognize them and pounce.

The Lakers can also look to throw the ball ahead to Barnes leaking out after he contests jumpers. Barnes is likely to see a lot of minutes against Harden and Durant who are both fond of taking long jumpers that he’ll be closing out on. When those shots miss, he can lead out. The same is true of Gasol when he contests Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers in pick and pop situations. Many of these actions end with Serge taking 16 foot jumpers from the elbow area, and if the Lakers are gang rebounding the way they’re supposed to be, Pau can afford to run out a few times a game.

Ultimately, Playing 90 possessions against a stout half-court defense will grind any offense down. The Lakers must do more to cash in on the open court chances that present themselves.

*More big to big passing/actions. After the game, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol sat on the bench together discussing strategy. They surely understand that despite having Kobe Bryant on their team, their play will have the largest impact on the Lakers’ chances  this series. With that being the case, they must find more ways to work together in order to take advantage of the aggressive play of OKC’s big men. Both Perkins and Ibaka want to get up the floor on defensive coverages. Both also want to be steady helpers at the rim to block and contest shots. This approach makes both vulnerable to smart cuts, quick duck-ins, high-low passes, and offensive rebounding chances. Ball rotations from the Lakers wings will aid in these actions but both Bynum and Gasol must be ready to take advantage when these opportunities present themselves. They can’t be caught standing and watching, nor can they get down on themselves should things not go their way early. They must continue to work and pound away because these openings will materialize.

*Get some bench production. The Lakers don’t possess a natural scorer off their bench. The reserves aren’t called upon to provide instant offense, their job is to support the starters their mixed with and to run the offense in manner that maximizes those players’ games. However, that doesn’t mean L.A.’s subs can play long stretches without looking for their own shots and knocking down the open looks they’re going to get.

I’ve already mentioned the need for Barnes to run out more and try to get some easy baskets in early offense. He’ll also need to rediscover some of his regular season success as a slasher who finishes at the rim after ball reversals. Steve Blake needs to be assertive with his shot and hit some of the open jumpers he’ll be afforded. He can’t have a repeat of game one where he only took a single shot, looking mostly passive in the process. Jordan Hill must also find a way to get some baskets either as a garbage man on offensive rebounds or by taking advantage of the attention drawn by his post partner by sneaking into the paint and getting good looks off quick passes. No one expects these guys to match Harden point for point but being outscored by the 6MOY as a unit (as this trio did in game 1) certainly won’t get it done.

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Yesterday the Pacers stole a game from the Heat in Miami in their game 2 match up. Yes the Heat were missing a key player but the lesson remains the same. These games are winnable should you execute well and go hard the entire contest. The Lakers are underdogs; they’re facing a better team. But they have the pieces that can win should they work their plan well. Tonight gives them another chance to do just that.